community aspirations

Local organization works to drive county successes
By George Piper  //  Photography by Scott Roberson and submitted

Some people might find those ads on social media annoying, but not Angela DeVoss.

While scrolling through Facebook in January 2020, DeVoss spotted a meeting notice for the Aspire Community Matters team — one of several spokes in the wheel that comprise the Aspire Economic Development + Chamber Alliance in Johnson County. Hearing Tiffany Woods from Neighbors of West Old Town Greenwood talk about “placemaking” sparked an interest in DeVoss to find out more.

“(Woods’) story was really compelling and what communities should be about,” DeVoss says. “When I found out there was a whole entire volunteer team whose goals included working on placemaking and pride of place in Johnson County, as well as other topics I’m interested in, I was interested right away.”

Common goals
It’s little wonder that DeVoss was interested: Aspire Economic Development + Chamber Alliance’s goal is to drive economic development and business success in Johnson County and southern Indianapolis. As the local economic development organization for Johnson County, Aspire works to attract, retain and expand businesses in the county. As a chamber, Aspire leads the area’s business community by advancing pro-growth policies, leveraging community development opportunities and providing comprehensive member services to entrepreneurs, small businesses and large corporations.

Aspire works under the mission “to capitalize on our pride of place, assets, and potential to promote health, happiness and well-being while connecting and representing all voices of the community.” The organization is open to all interested individuals regardless of Aspire investment.

A month later, DeVoss attended her first Aspire Community Engagement Team meeting and in March 2020 became the team’s co-chair. Aspire’s attraction to someone like DeVoss speaks to the success and enthusiasm that the organization brings to Johnson County.

“The Johnson County Development Corporation wanted to move Johnson County beyond ‘good enough,’” says Jennifer Hollingshead, Aspire’s community development specialist. “They form volunteer teams to boost quality of life, build collaboration between educators and employers, and get residents’ input on community planning and infrastructure.”

The Community Engagement Team — formerly called the Placemaking Team — has played a key role in Aspire’s efforts since 2014. It uses Aspire’s economic development strategic plan and input from the team to choose projects to undertake.

Some of the team’s accomplishments include:
Developing an activity book for all Johnson County third and fourth graders to highlight history and local amenities in Johnson County.
Creating the website to highlight local food resources and for use by Johnson County Local Food Council.
Partnering with several groups and businesses, including Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis and the office of International Affairs at IUPUI, to discuss how to make Johnson County more welcoming to immigrants.
Conducting an Aspire to Allyship virtual workshop to provide a basic framework for understanding allyship – a social justice, inclusion and human rights effort – as well as practical tools to achieve it.

Community conversations
As co-chair, DeVoss plays a key role in facilitating community conversations and working on projects.

“One of the things that I love about the Community Engagement Team is the concept of bringing various people and various organizations and entities in the community together to help make Johnson County the best it can be,” she says, noting the several community conversations seeking input from Johnson County residents on changes and improvements they’d like to see. “It’s been an amazing experience to hear the feedback from several groups.”

DeVoss welcomed a new co-chair, Jessica Schwarz, to the team in March. A meeting over coffee last year between Schwarz and Hollingshead lead to Schwarz joining the team. “Angela and Jennifer and I met via Zoom to discuss this co-chair role, and I agreed to come alongside to serve Johnson County and Aspire,” says Schwarz, who also serves as a community development officer for the Community Foundation of Morgan County.

The Johnson County Public Library is a key partner with the team. Davin Kolderup, manager of the JCPL Clark Pleasant Branch in New Whiteland, highlighted the library’s efforts in providing meeting space as well as encouraging its staff to volunteer.

“The mission and goals of (Aspire) complement JCPL’s own mission very significantly,” he says, noting both organizations’ commitments to make Johnson County a better place to live, work and play. “As a result of this overlap of our goals and methods, a partnership with Aspire was a natural fit.”

One of the most significant partnerships has been on the Harwood Community Conversations. Aspire and JCPL staff attended a multiday training from the Harwood Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that teaches a method for community conversations intended to plant the seeds of lasting, positive community change.

“Our team has been hosting small ‘kitchen table’ conversations with small groups around Johnson County to facilitate conversation about their aspirations and concerns for Johnson County and what kind of community they want,” Hollingshead says.

Conversations with other local organizations and individuals followed the training, and information from those discussions is being compiled to share with local leaders to determine the next steps.

Connecting through dreams
“Now more than ever, all communities need organizations that are committed to connecting everyone through their shared aspirations,” Kolderup says. “The Community Engagement Team has done an outstanding job seeking out opportunities to make Johnson County a more welcoming and better-informed community.”

One of DeVoss’ favorite projects centers on building welcoming communities. A November panel discussion featured representation from various immigration organizations. “The goal was to
build understanding and learn more about what we can do as a community to be welcoming to others,” she says.

The panel included a representative from Welcoming America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that leads a movement of inclusive communities becoming more prosperous by making everyone feel as if they belong. “Their organization has a program where communities can become a Certified Welcoming Community and be listed on a special map,” DeVoss says. “It would be amazing if Johnson County could be on that map someday.”

Another fun upcoming project planned for the summer is the Great Park Quest, a family scavenger hunt in partnership with all Johnson County parks, the JCPL and the Greenwood Public Library.
Other current projects include:

Working with Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County and Upstream Prevention to raise awareness about preventing suicides, which included a recent documentary screening at Whiteland High School.

Partnering with Franklin College on a prototype site to highlight local farm stands, restaurants and farmers markets that have local food, with the goal of handing off the site to the Johnson County Local Food Council.

Although the response from the community has been good overall – particularly with the activity book and allyship workshop – Hollingshead says the organization believes there are others it can reach who can contribute their time and talents.

“I think we are still unknown to the overall community,” she says. “Aspire is working to spread that word that people that live or work in Johnson County can get involved.”

You can find the Aspire Community Engagement Team at 1499 Windhorst Way, Suite 160, Greenwood or 66 Water St., Franklin. (317) 537.0037,